'Sherlock's Last Case' Fulfills All the Requirements of Summer Theater

Theater companies reserve the summer for their frothiest, most lightweight entertainments. Theatre Knoxville Downtown opens its sixth season with Sherlock's Last Case, a play so unencumbered by meaning that it practically evaporates before your eyes. And if the company puts the production over with more brio than skill, it's all part of the summer theater experience.

As interesting as the play itself is its bizarre provenance. It was written by Charles Marowitz, who in the 1960s was at the forefront of the theatrical avant-garde. An American expatriate working in London, he collaborated on occasion with Peter Brook, Sam Shepard, and Joseph Chaikin; he was perhaps best known for his "deconstructions" of Shakespeare's major works. (Some scholars were convinced he cut up the lines and drew them at random from a hat.) Forward-thinking university theaters regularly presented his Hamlet to baffled audiences throughout the late 1960s and '70s. Marowitz eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he wrote Sherlock's Last Case, a piece that resembles his prior body of work in the same way Leonardo DiCaprio resembles Jim Belushi.

The plot has more twists and turns than a corkscrew, but Marowitz lays it out in a very straightforward way, and he makes it easy for even an undemanding audience to connect the dots. On an ordinary day at 221B Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes receives a letter from Simeon Moriarty, the heretofore-unknown son of Holmes' arch-nemesis, the recently deceased Professor Moriarty. The letter accuses Holmes of the villain's murder, with Simeon vows to avenge his father. A second threat arrives at the flat in the form of a tombstone, complete with Holmes' name and the date of his demise, scheduled for one week hence. The final ominous event is the drugging and tying up of Dr. Watson, who is discovered in Holmes' closet. Death seems imminent.

Soon after, the sleuth is visited by Liza Moriarty, who begs Holmes not to confront her twin brother, which would surely result in the lad's demise. She brokers a meeting between Holmes, Watson, and her murderous sibling in his hideout, a country cave. The detective agrees. The meeting takes place, the plot is revealed, and Sherlock Holmes is … murdered. And that's just Act One.

Of course, I am bound by the critic's code not to reveal elements of Act Two that might detract from your full enjoyment of the evening, but suffice it to say that what becomes tangled gets untangled, and order is restored without so much as a hair out of place.

But while Marowitz respects the rules of plot (even if he borrows a hefty amount of it from Sleuth), he falters a bit with the tone of the play, which is half Arthur Conan Doyle and half The Importance of Being Ernest. He tries to polish his epigrams, but can't help throwing in a lame wink or two at the audience—an extended bit about Holmes' actual age lands with a thud. And he plays fast and loose with characterization. This is not a play for Sherlock Holmes purists. In Sherlock's Last Case he's not the tortured, cocaine-addicted genius of the stories, but rather a witty, if tetchy, luncheon companion.

Director Patrick McCray plays the production for laughs, more than I think is warranted. The first rule of directing, after all, is if you want a comedy to be funny, play it straight. But the opening-night audience chuckled in many places, and the pace of the show was surprisingly brisk. I feel compelled to note that some jarringly contemporary bits of business in the show were truly distracting (Mrs. Hudson flips Holmes off at one point) and the music selections during scene change were particularly odd (Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" turns up late in the play, for reasons that stubbornly defied any explanation I could fathom).

The acting was uniformly enthusiastic—and that's a compliment. Larry Bunton cuts a fine figure as Sherlock Holmes, although as a tenor, he made me long for Basil Rathbone's mellifluous baritone. Stephen Perkins clearly enjoyed nibbling a bit of scenery as Watson, and his delight was infectious. Tiffany Tallent's Liza Moriarty is more burdened with plot than fleshed out as a character, but she did keep the story moving along.

And ultimately that's why we attend theater in the summer: to see a cracking good yarn in an air-conditioned room. At Theatre Downtown Knoxville, we get both.